Determining what to focus on and which tests you should take and when can be very challenging for any student. Add on extracurricular activities and college applications and it can feel downright overwhelming. This college admissions timeline hits on the major milestones or things that you should think about doing from your freshman to senior year. These are general milestones, and every student is different. The most important thing is to make a plan and stick to it!
Ah, the first year of high school. While it may seem like college is a long way down the road, this is really the first year that colleges will look at your high school transcript. Take your grades seriously, but also use this time to explore new activities, clubs, and opportunities to interact with your peers.
● Get involved and try something new. This is your chance to try different sports, clubs, and activities to find a couple that you are really passionate about.
● Ready for an academic challenge? Try an AP® course. The AP course that most students take first is Human Geography.
Ok, you totally got this high school thing down. Classes may be more challenging, and you may find that you are doing lots and lots of homework. Bear in mind that everything you do now is preparing you for academic life in college so keep it up.
● Start narrowing your list of extracurricular activities. By now, you’ve hopefully broadened your horizons and found some things that you really like. Not there yet? That’s ok. Keep trying new things and search for what you can really get into.
● AP® courses provide a great opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack academically. There are 38 subjects available for AP® courses so it also gives you the chance to explore subjects that interest you.
● While you don’t have to figure out what you will be when you grow up (and we guarantee you will change your mind a few times), career research is a great way to start thinking about it, especially now since you aren’t as busy as you’ll be the next two years. Does your school offer a shadowing day where you can go to work with someone you know? Take advantage of that or do your own research.
Believe it or not, junior year will be your most difficult. There are a lot of things that you need to do this year. Our best piece of advice for junior year is to make a plan and stay organized. Then take a deep breath because you will make it through.
● PSAT® – Your first standardized test. The good news? The PSAT doesn’t really doesn’t count for anything. The bad news? It’s the first of many standardized tests. Normally, this test is offered at your school in October. If you do well, you can qualify to be a National Merit Scholar. It also gives you a good idea how you’d score on the SAT®. Use this test as a barometer for yourself—see where you stand and where you want to go and then make a study plan for the SAT or the ACT®.
● ACT or SAT – While there has been a growing number of schools who have gone test optional, the importance of the ACT and SAT for your college applications is so up in the air that we recommend you take these tests regardless. They may not count for admissions, but they may determine merit-based aid at schools you apply to.
Studying for these tests is important. Don’t just take these tests cold. They’re expensive and unless you are an amazing test-taker, odds are you won’t score as high as you think you will. We recommend studying for at least 8 weeks. Look into prep courses, books, or free resources to help you.
Most students take the ACT or SAT in the spring of their junior year. We recommend taking them in late fall or early winter so if you need to take them again, you have time before the end of school.
● AP Courses or Dual Enrollment – If your school offers advanced coursework and you feel that you can do well in the courses, sign up for them! Your junior year is the year that is most closely scrutinized by admissions officers. Just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. It’s more important that you do well in advanced coursework versus just taking them to take them.
● College Exploration – It’s time to start visiting colleges and working on a list of potential places that you would like to apply to. Use your spring break or summer vacation to explore different campuses.
You made it! The hard work is over! Not really, but it will feel a lot different than last year. The name of the game this year is applications, not testing. It’s time to start applying to college!
● Letters of Recommendation – You’ll most likely need 3 letters of recommendation. We advise students to ask teachers, leaders or coaches from your extracurricular activities, or others who may know you well outside of your family. Start asking people early and provide them with a resume or CV to help them write about you easily. Make sure to send thank you notes afterwards. Don’t forget that if you are using the College Tracker app, you can easily download a list of your activities to share with others.
● College Admissions Essays – If you are using Common App (and you most likely will) to apply to colleges, the essays are normally available in August. Get a head start and work on them early. Be prepared to write additional essays for some schools. Make sure to proofread your essays as well as make them specific (if appropriate) for the schools that request additional ones.
● Prepare for Applications – You’re going to need to gather up some things before you fill out your applications. Test scores, GPA, class rank, activities, and awards are a good starting point so you don’t have to search around for this information in the middle of an application.
● Meet those deadlines – If you are applying for early decision at any schools, those deadlines are in November. If you are applying for early action, you should also apply early as you should hear back by January or February. Normal admission deadlines are in January or February. Remember, early decision is a binding contract. This means that you will attend this school if you are accepted. Early action allows for more flexibility.
● Decision time! It’s time to decide where you’re going to spend the next 4 years of your life. While no one can give you a crystal ball and say that you’ll be the happiest or most successful at one school or the other, our best advice for choosing a school is based upon two factors:
1. Will you do well there?
2. Can you afford to go there?
These questions are based around one simple fact: college degrees are no longer as valuable as they used to be. You will most likely need an advanced degree to pursue a lucrative career. If you can’t do well at a school because it’s not a good fit culturally, academically, or socially, then you’re not going to get the GPA or experience you need to do well after college. If you can’t afford to go there and end up with a lot of debt, you will have your advanced degree debt on top of your college debt to pay off while you’re trying to do other things later in life like buying a house, starting a business, traveling, etc.
● Celebrate! Take a minute and think back about your journey. Think about moments that you were overwhelmed and didn’t think you’d get to this point. Now give yourself a big pat on the back. You did it! Enjoy the next steps in your journey.
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